Basic Facts:

  • A stress test, also called an exercise stress test, shows how your heart works during physical activity. Because exercise makes your heart pump harder and faster, an exercise stress test can reveal problems with blood flow within your heart.
  • A stress test usually involves walking on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike. The heart rhythm, blood pressure and breathing are closely monitored. For people who have difficulty with physical exercise a drug that mimics the effects of exercise may be used instead.

There are many different types of stress tests including regular stress tests, echo stress tests, and nuclear stress tests. In a regular stress test, EKGs are obtained while exercising. In an echo stress test, ultrasound images of the heart are obtained before and after exercise. In a nuclear stress test, a small dose of radioactive material is injected through an IV and images of the heart are obtained with a special camera. Then the patient either exercises or receives simulated exercise with a medication. A second set of images are taken with the camera. 

A stress test shows how your heart works during physical activity.  It is used in a variety of situations such as

  • Looking for blockages of the heart arteries in patients who have symptoms such as chest pain, pressure, or shortness of breath
  • Understanding the prognosis of someone who is already known to have heart disease
  • Helping determine the severity of heart valve disease
  • Understanding a patient’s cardiac risk if they are to undergo other surgical procedures
  • Looking for heart rhythm abnormalities that might be related to exercise.


Your Virginia Heart Care Team will give you specific instructions on how to prepare for your stress test.

A regular stress test or echo will take around an hour, including both your prep time and the time it takes to perform the actual test. A nuclear stress test will take 2-3 hours. 


After you stop exercising, you may be asked to stand still for several seconds and then lie down for a period of time with the monitors in place. Your doctor can watch for any abnormalities as your heart rate and breathing return to normal.

When your exercise stress test is complete, you may return to your normal activities unless your doctor tells you otherwise.